Interview: Ihsahn

I wanted to write this album as a dual output, where the orchestral arrangements would support the metal production, but also arranged in such a way that they would function independently.

For the past thirty years, Ihsahn has constantly been making music that is in turns majestic and defies boundaries in extreme music. From his beginnings in black metal behemoths Emperor to his solo work and beyond, Ihsahn has always been a master of his craft, his music constantly challenging and enchanting the listener and this certainly continues on his latest self-titled solo album. Gavin Brown had the pleasure of talking to Ihsahn about this latest release and its creation as well as delving into his vast career as a musician including his time with Emperor and how excited he is to be still doing what he loves.

E&D: Your new self titled album is out very soon. As it’s your first studio album in six years, how does it feel to be back with this new music?

Ihsahn: It’s great. I’m looking forward to putting it out there it’s been, it’s been finished for a while and I’m excited to get it out there. I’m very proud of the album and how it all came together so I’m excited.

E&D: You are also releasing an orchestral version of the album. How was the experience of making that and is that something you’ve wanted to do for a while?

Ihsahn: That was the goal. Before even starting writing any of the music, I wanted to write this album as a dual output, where the orchestral arrangements would support the metal production, but also arranged in such a way that they would function independently. That was the challenge going into this. Literally, I was doing both at the same time, this kind of short score form with just a piano sound, and then arranged it for the metal parts, and the orchestral parts after the fact.

E&D: Your music obviously is still very heavy, but also has a grandeur about it. Are these merging of feelings still important to you when you’re creating your solo music?

Ihsahn: I just try to create the stuff that I’m inspired to create. It was very satisfying to me. I’ve been doing orchestrations in my music throughout my entire career, adding layers and everything, of course, in a very dense metal expression, a lot of the more subtle nuances are often missed. So this way, I could really get the best of both worlds and have that grandeur of an orchestra backing the metal music, but at the same time, also being able to express and invite people into the more subtle nuances of my music.

E&D: Is the orchestral element of this record something that you want to explore in a live environment in the future?

Ihsahn: I have definitely thought about that, but I’ve also checked the resources needed to do that properly. It’s a great idea of course, and the pieces I’ve written are orchestrated in a way that they could literally be played as this, But, just the starting costs of getting rehearsals and everything, we were talking about £200,000 pounds just to start it up. Then it would have to be done with a smaller ensemble, or just like a blend of things. Then it’s like, is it making a live performance that is actually better, or is it a gimmicky thing? Because it looks nice to have like real players on stage. My point is that, I’d love to do it at some point and I know the orchestra that I used would have loved to do that with the experience and technical ability to pull it off in a way that it would be an amazing thing, but doing something like that on a budget, I’m better off not to at this point, so maybe, if it becomes very successful, maybe I get an opportunity.

E&D: The album also has a very cinematic feeling about it. Was that something you’ve wanted to explore and something you would like to do in the future, your music scoring films?

Ihsahn: I’d love to have an opportunity to score films. That’s why I started using keyboards and more orchestral sounds in my music since the very beginning, for over thirty years now. The old soundtracks to The Omen, the work of Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams, Bernard Herrmann. All the classics, were such a huge influence on me. It has that same epic dimension. This was the main background for going into this album as well. I guess, harmonically, it’s more experimental because I’m trying to lean more into the harmonic language of traditional horror movie soundtracks, dark movie soundtracks. At the core of this album is traditional orchestral music and traditional metal music, there are no synthesisers this time. This is my first album with a full storyline and a chronological narrative in the lyrics.


E&D: Is a full narrative an idea you have wanted to incorporate for a while into an album?

Ihsahn: I always had a very specific conceptual world, going into my albums, because I grew up on Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and King Diamond who had a lot of conceptual albums. To me, Iron Maiden, the way the artwork always made sense in relation to the music, like Powerslave or Somewhere In Time or my favourite Maiden album, Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, it goes together in the conceptual thing. The albums that stuck with me were the albums that you listen to them from beginning to end, and it’s a full experience, not just a collection of random songs from that period. I always liked the bigger picture, and of course soundtracks, and orchestral music. Storytelling is something that appeals very much to me.

E&D: You mentioned that this album has been being done for a while, have you had any thoughts about what you’re going to do next musically?

Ihsahn: I’ll be honest, this is the hardest album I’ve ever made. It really took a toll and it was super hard, but at the end of the day, it came out, in my subjective opinion, all the better for it. I learned so much in the process of making this. I’m closing in on fifty and to be this excited and to learn this much from making an album. I’m just looking forward to the next one, and I have some ideas of where that’s going to be, but I have to do all the practical stuff of trying to back this album with press and doing some doing some shows. There’s a lot of practical aspects to rehearsals and everything going into that so I’ll try to save up some energy for a bit later and then dive into the next one.

E&D: How inspiring is it to be to be constantly creating such forward thinking music with your solo work so far into your career?

Ihsahn: I am very humbled by the fact that I still get to do this.I’m very privileged. This has been my passion for as long as I can remember, and it’s more like a consequence of me being very passionate about it and doing it all the time that made it into career, so that kind of happiness, it’s just part of me that that was not the plan. Starting a black metal band in 1991 is hardly the best career move! At the time, it wasn’t very fortunate and that’s why I become more and more conscious of every new project I enter into every new album, I’m setting out to do is to put myself in a position where, again, I’m just as excited about making new music as back when I started out, because I never want to give up that privilege and start, being too practical about it, and having too many concerns. I think much of the reason why I still get to do this is that for the kind of audience that listen to this type of music, they want something real.

E&D: You have constantly released music in between the albums including the Pharos EP in 2020 where you covered songs by A-Ha and Portishead. How does it feel to put your own mark on other artists songs and who would you love to cover in the future?

Ihsahn: I haven’t given that too much thought. Over my career, I haven’t really done that many covers. For that particular EP, they were very distilled in their form. First I did the Telemark EP in Norwegian and it had an old school kind of sound, very much back to basics. Then, I did the covers for the Pharos EP to kind of get myself into the mindset and sound of what I wanted that EP to be. Of course, I’m a big fan of A-Ha and Portishead and they were  just so far away from what I’ve been doing, and by exploring their music and really getting into the details of how they made that music, that put me into the space for those kinds of expressions. That was very deliberate project to try to challenge myself in two independent or very different directions.

E&D: Are you looking forward to to bringing your solo music over to the UK for the Celestial Darkness festival in March and how do you feel that the new new album will translate in a live environment?

Ihsahn: Absolutely! I think, honestly, that the new songs, even though it has all the orchestral elements on the album, it’s both things that I’ll be bringing. I will be be adding the orchestral samples to the live show as well. But at the heart of it, in the way I wrote it, there’s really not much that the orchestra plays that the guitars don’t play. It is literally the same music. So in a live situation, I think the emphasis will be on the metal side of things, and then I feel the intensity and rawness of the songs will will be well suited for the live expression.

E&D: You’ve also got live dates with Emperor over the summer. Are you looking forward to hitting the stage with the band again?

Ihsahn: Yeah, for sure. We always have a good time when we go out now. We’ve been doing it for such a long while now,  the band and the crew is just the same group of people going out and having a great time. It’s a really good culture and vibe within the whole organisation, we get to go to some amazing places, and play some really cool show. So that’s always a pleasure.

E&D: As 2024 marks thirty years since Emperor released In The Nightside Eclipse, will you be celebrating this anniversary at the dates over the summer?

Ihsahn: I don’t think so. We did the twentieth anniversary thing, and that even doesn’t seem that long ago! It was cool to do, and then we did the Anthems At The Welkin At Dust anniversary thing but I think it comes to the point where you can’t just timestamp how many times you can do that and find it interesting, both for ourselves and for the audience. Now when we play the old songs we try to mix it up with curveball songs to bring to the stage, but of course, a lot of the quote unquote classics have a natural place in the set, so we try to build just on the catalogue as this.

E&D: Do you have good memories of making In The Nightside Eclipse and does it seem like over thirty years ago?

Ihsahn: Yeah, it seems like a different lifetime, and not just because of the years in between. There’s something for most people, I hope, you’re quite a different kind of person when you’re closing in on fifty than when you were sixteen or seventeen. I have very fond memories of that time, of course, but it was all very in the moment, you know, nothing was really that planned or anything, you went with the flow of course with all the all the drama and struggles of being a teenager.

E&D: If you could go back and give yourself advice at that time, with the career you’ve had, what advice would you give yourself as a teenager?

Ihsahn: The most important lesson is probably that the only thing you have control over is how you relate to what you create. What you put out there, people are going to decide what it’s going to be. In general, just care less about that and stay true to what you believe in, your creativity, and don’t let the outside really meddle with that. Largely we didn’t, but it’s just a very interesting lesson in the sense that the first Emperor albums were absolutely slaughtered by major metal magazines at the time. We were the scum of the earth and then some time passes, and suddenly the same magazines put out these old albums next to the first Black Sabbath album as important! So when they wanted us to be the scum of the earth, with this horrible music that’s what they decided and when they decided it was something cool and something nostalgic, that’s what they decided to be so you have no control of that.

E&D: Have you got any other live plans to come for Emperor or solo dates in the UK as well this year and beyond? You are playing in Glasgow with Emperor in March but will you be doing more?

Ihsahn: We haven’t started booking things that much for 2025 yet but we are looking for more shows in the UK.

E&D: Over the years which live shows still stand out as special for you both with Emperor and solo?

Ihsahn: it was such a great moment, the first time we played Wacken with Emperor on our first reunion, it went from zero to everything! We were the main headliners, but we played to like 80,000 people who were singing along. That was a crazy, crazy moment that I vividly recall. There’s  been so many, the first time I came to Japan, just to meet the culture there and to play shows to that audience. I’ve been fortunate to be back there many times. Australia, to experience playing South America, and the passion of the crowds there. We were recently on a small US tour, playing these amazing theatres. That was just beautiful and I never imagined that we would be able to play in the Kings Theatre in New York or the YouTube Theatre in LA, beautiful places. We’ve still got many more to come too.

Photo by Andy Ford.

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